Libraries, lending, and the “durability” of ebooks…

This post first appeared in March 2011 on Just in Case, the (then) blog of the Judge Ben C. Green Law Library. Just in Case blog content was subsequently migrated to the integrated law library website.
“Lending” libraries are fundamentally ill-equipped to cope with digital materials, including “ebooks.” These must be freely copy-able, “tethered” within networks, or protected by strong DRM. None of the options is compatible with the traditional business model of lending libraries.

The New York Times reports on HarperCollins’ efforts to limit the number of “loans” of eBooks it provides to libraries. Cory Doctorow has a critical op-ed in the website of the Guardian.

We’ve mentioned before that eBooks pose some major and unresolved business-model challenges for libraries. Because a digital file, unlike a bound book on paper, can “natively” be copied with near perfection and nearly zero cost, both publishers and libraries are in a quandary. A lending model makes a sort of natural sense for printed books — they can, after all, only be in one place at a time. And if a library needs more copies to serve its user base it will simply buy additional copies. American copyright law has also evolved to explicitly make room, through limitations on the “distribution right,” for library (and personal) lending and re-sale. (Lending rights are handled differently in European countries, but that’s another story…)

A digital file, by contrast, can naturally be copied very easily. In fact, it must be copied many times to be communicated through computer networks and stored and retrieved from computer memory on digital devices. Also unlike printed materials, a digital copy normally cannot “wear out,” nor are downstream copies degraded from the originals. So additional natural restrictions on lending are also absent.

Because the inherent limits on the reach of loaned copies of analog materials, like print books, don’t apply those who would seek to provide digital resources to library users face a quandary. Ultimately, the choices boil down to these. Allow, out in “the wild” a freely copy-able digital artifact. “Lock down” or restrict the digital artifact with some kind of software poison pill (e.g. DRM, or Digital Rights Management). Or allow the artifact to be view-able only while connected live (and authenticated) to some private network while making efforts to prohibit or limit the user’s practical ability to download a copy to one’s own computer or other device. None of these options is compatible with the traditional business model of a “lending library,” and each poses some mix of challenges to publishers and consumers as well.

Collections of networked electronic books have great value, especially in full-text searching. But because of these difficulties for actual reading, I think many in libraries had basically explored and abandoned the earlier iteration of “always connected” eBooks by the time the Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc., brought electronic books into an actually portable and comfortably readable setting, and brought them to mass public attention. The challenge now is to engage with these portable reader formats to find a model for content distribution that will work for our user communities.

In particular, the “networked” model — which had some prominence in library settings early on — has run up against the user preference for portability. I recall, several years ago when I would handle faculty reference questions at another library, that in all but emergency circumstances most of our faculty users would typically choose to wait for a print copy to be available rather than deign to read one of the networked books, with the restrictions that were involved (mainly, having to read the thing while sitting at a computer connected to our network or else print out only inconveniently short passages). While Overdrive-style lending management and library ebook packages that do allow chapter level downloading have advanced since then, neither solution leaves the library in full control of its own collections.

It is hard to see why traditional publishers would readily embrace an “endlessly lendable” digital format, now that the move to digital files and transmission by copying has neatly sidestepped both the material and the legal restraints on publisher’s post-publication control of print artifacts. (The only circumstance in which I could see this would be with print works of comparatively ephemeral value, released DRM-free in much the way the (Apple-prodded) music industry has gradually moved toward DRM-free music files.) The challenge for libraries is to think hard about what response appropriately protects our user communities and our responsibility to the informational record of our times.

As a preliminary thought, the answer ultimately may lie in a wholly new approach to “publishing” and to the place of the institutional library in the supply chain from information producer to information consumer.

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2 thoughts on “Libraries, lending, and the “durability” of ebooks…

  1. Pingback: Libraries, lending, and the “durability” of ebooks… • The Judge Ben C. Green Law Library • Case Western Reserve University School of Law

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